Examining Sir Gawain’s Misogynist Diatribe
Near the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain unleashes a lengthy diatribe against women. He openly condemns women, blaming them for the fall of men across centuries. “Adam fell because of a woman, and Solomon because of several, and afterwards David was bamboozled by Bathsheba,” lists Gawain. (Gawain 2419) This passage is of particular interest because it is bookended by Gawain first claiming to “bear the blame” of what he is done, and blessing Lady Bertilak for the gift of the girdle. The incongruousness of this passage makes it stand out. Why does Gawain here, momentarily, criticise women when throughout the rest of the romance he consistently extols them in typical chivalrous fashion? The anti-feminism in these lines do not reflect the intent of the poem, but rather serve to undermine and possibly parody the apparently chivalrous Gawain. The lines act as a deconstruction of the typical Chivalric romance.
In order to understand this passage, the importance of the women in the poem needs to be recognized. While the poem is ostensibly about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the most important character present is in fact not Sir Gawain or the Green Knight, but rather Morgan le Fay. The actions taken by the female characters, while not as apparent in the narrative as the actions taken by the men, show that the poem is more complex with regards to femininity than Gawain’s chivalry, or his misogyny, make it seem. Morgan Le Fay’s presence in the poem is only revealed near the very end, when the plot is explained by the Green Knight. This is a significant plot twist, and entirely changes the poem from a primarily masculine narrative to a feminine one. Until this point in the poem, the men appear to be in charge. Arthur is the king of his court. The Green Knight presents the challenge. Gawain steps up to the challenge. While Guinevere is present throughout this, she does nothing to change the course of events. It seems like her presence is for the most part inconsequential. It is not until the Green Knight says “[Morgan] imagined this mischief would muddle your minds and that grieving Guinevere would go to her grave at the sight of a specter making ghostly speeches with his head in his hands before the high table,” that Guinevere’s appearance in the poem seems like anything more than a cameo. Not only is her presence important, it was the impetus behind the plot. The men appear to be the main players, but they are in fact pawns. “Men were puppets in the hands of Morgan Le Fay to grieve another powerful woman, Guinevere,” writes Rubén Valdés Miyares (Miyares 186). Similarly, the scenes of seduction between Lady Bertilak and Gawain at first appear to be male-dominated. Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain, but he is in control and refuses her due to his duty to the king. Again, the characters appear to be following patriarchal roles, but again it is merely a ruse. Geraldine Heng argues that Gawain’s seduction is a purely feminine “game,” and that it is only hidden in the “masculine screen game of exchanges.” (Heng 501)
The Green Knight’s explanation of the plot shows how pervasive Le Fay’s control is. He says, “in my manor lives the mighty Morgan le Fay,” and that “she guided me in this guise.” (Gawain 2456) The Green Knight does not appear to be aware of how in control of him Le Fay is. She lives in his manor and guided him. Considering that it has been revealed that he has not taken any act in the play by his own accord, and rather because Le Fay told him to, it seems likely that the “manor” is only the Green Knight’s in name, and that Le Fay’s “guidance” could be more accurately described as orders. Just like how she fooled Gawain by allowing him to play out what he thought was a masculine quest, she has also convinced the Green Knight that he is in control of his estate and that she merely guides him, when in reality she is entirely in control.
After understanding the level of control Morgan has on the poem, Gawain’s outburst starts to make sense. He had been acting in his role as a chivalrous knight, and was immensely dedicated to his role. Everything he did throughout the play attests to that. He stood up and accepted the Green Knight’s challenge and, without thinking of the consequences, he followed through with it by chopping the Knight’s head off. He then further followed through with the Green Knight’s challenge by seeking him out at the end of the year, overcoming dangerous obstacles in his search for the green chapel. He only stops to rest at Hautdesert after he a reassured that the Chapel is nearby. He participates in Bertilak’s exchanging of gifts. He is cordial towards Lady Bertilak while she tempts him in his room. When he did succumb to the temptation, however slightly, he took his punishment precisely how he was supposed to as a chivalrous knight, saying
“Such terrible mistakes
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name.” (Gawain 2385)
He was humble and self-blaming. His anti-feminist diatribe is the singular instance of Gawain acting non-knightley in any way, as it was his virtue that led him to sin. Gerald Morgan suggests that, “Gawain is not only humiliated by this realization of his sinfulness but also frustrated and embittered by the thought that his own virtues have made their contribution to that downfall.” (Morgan 276) By attempting to act virtuous, Gawain played into Le Fay’s hand. She turned his courteous virtue around on him, and in doing so made a mockery of it. “Had Gawain been a lesser man he might simply have asked the lady to leave his bedroom. Had he been prepared to use violence against a woman… he no doubt could have protected his selfish interest in that way.” (Morgan 277) Morgan argues that Gawain is not acting as an “embittered male,” or attempting to remove his blame, but instead that he is explaining that it was his uncompromising dedication to chivalry that led him into her trap and that even a great man, such as Adam, Solomon, Samson, David, or Gawain himself, could be fooled in the same way.
Just as Gawain’s quest is not truly a masculine quest, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not truly a masculine text. Geraldine Heng writes, “Under present conditions of reading it is possible to distinguish a feminine text in Sir Gawain in those reasons where the logic of the poem as the stage of the masculine actors founders and fails.” The image of a knight completing a heroic journey falls apart immediately after Le Fay’s role is revealed. This also raises questions about the intent of the poem as a whole. Is it meant to be a parody of chivalry? Are we as readers supposed to take Gawain as a fool for being bested despite his strict accordance with knightly conduct? Or are we to view Morgan as a “Delilah,” a warning that women are treacherous and not to be trusted. Such a claim would be difficult to defend, as Le Fay’s motives are not clear. The Green Knight’s explanation of Le Fay as the mastermind behind the plot creates ambiguity in what was up until that point a straightforward narrative. Catherine Batt argues that this ambiguity affects Gawain himself, and that “Gawain’s response, in the
absence of a moral centre for the poem, can be interpreted as an attempt to
reclaim control by constructing another ‘space’ for himself, one so limiting as
to make possible only one reading of his behaviour.” After returning from Hautdesert, Arthur’s court accepts the girdle as a symbol in an attempt to give Gawain’s quest meaning. But it has none. Le Fay stripped away any personal growth Gawain could have had. Yes, Gawain learned a lot from his experience with the Green Knight, and if the story were only about the Green Knight tempting Gawain in order to teach him a lesson about how to be virtuous, then Gawain taking his place in Arthur’s court at the end of the poem would make sense. However, the fact that Gawain became a better knight from his encounter with the Green Knight is entirely inconsequential. He was merely a puppet for Le Fay. His own personal growth is unimportant when Le Fay’s motives are taken into account. Batt writes, “The ‘testing’ of Gawain has been incidental to a plot the central purpose of which was to terrorize Guinevere.” (Batt 137) When you understand this, Gawain’s misogynist rant doesn’t stand out as a nonsensical aside that doesn’t fit with what he is saying, but rather seems to be the only thing he says that does make sense. It is as though, for a moment, Gawain realizes his insignificance, and that there is no clear cut meaning to his quest and that the chivalric code he follows so closely is in the end no comfort.
Gawain’s inability to easily reconcile his experience mimics the difficulty the reader has wrestling meaning out of the poem, argues Catherine Batt. Everything Gawain had learned so far is deconstructed and called into question. His dedication to chivalry is tested, and the inherent virtue of chivalry is called into question. “through Gawain,” writes Batt, “we learn to recognize that any single evaluation of a situation will, inevitably, be insufficient, and therefore to some
extent erroneous.” Gawain’s outburst is so far removed the his typical language, and Morgan Le Fay’s motives are so tenuous and shrouded that to discern a definite meaning from them is impossible. However, that is a meaning in itself. It opens the text up for far more open interpretation than if those ideas had not been included.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012. 186-238.
Batt, Catherine. “Gawain’s Antifeminist Rant, the Pentangle, and Narrative Space.” The Yearbook of English Studies 22.Medieval Narrative Special Number (1992): 117-39. Jstor. Modern Humanities Research Association. 1 Oct. 2014.
Heng, Geraldine. “Feminine Knots and Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” PMLA 106.3 (1991): 500-14. JSTOR. Modern Language Association. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.
Miyares, Rubén V. “Sir Gawain and the Great Goddess.” English Studies 83.3 (2002): 185-206. EBSCOHost. EBSCO Publishing. 7 Oct. 2014.
Morgan, Gerald. “Medieval Misogyny and Gawain’s Outburst against Women in “Sir Gawain and the Geen Knight”” The Modern Language Review 97.2 (2002): 265-78. JSTOR. Modern Humanities Research Association. 1 Oct. 2014.
Sharon M. Rowley. “Textual Studies, Feminism, and Peformance in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight.” The Chaucer Review 38.2 (2003): 158-177. Project MUSE. 7 Oct. 2014